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Liam Neeson provides the voice of Aslan the lion in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
Walt Disney Pictures
Liam Neeson provides the voice of Aslan the lion in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." At least he's a better choice than Gilbert Gottfried.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/12/2005 2:58:57 PM ET 2005-12-12T19:58:57
COMMENTARY

When I was a freshman, my theology professor sat us down and put “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in our hands, and we all cheered, for here at last was a book for a college course that did not ask us to write a thesis statement or balance chemical formulas or some other horrible thing. Then he announced that nothing in the book was what we thought it was at all; it seemed that the White Witch was the devil and Turkish Delight was sin and Aslan was Jesus and we had an essay due on all of this next Tuesday.

It is frighteningly easy to ruin a good work of literature by scholaring all over it. If I didn’t learn it that day in Theology 101, I figured it out 10 years later at my first academic conference, at which the most entertaining thing was the cocktail party — nothing beats watching a room full of Ph.Ds attempt to form a line at the bar. And even before the alcohol showed up, several of my fellow attendees were open to conversation about Aslan, but they tended to begin their sentences like this: “Of course, dystopian constructs often enjamb metaphysical imagery…”  I will expound further upon this the instant that I complete the three or four additional advanced degrees that will allow me understand just what-all was said.

But a good Hollywood adventure does not need to worry about paragraphs or SAT words or even, in most cases, any semblance of a plausible plot. So sometimes we look to a good movie to make the literature more digestible, to “pre-baptize the imagination,” to use Lewis’ own words. 

Yet in a world where Christ is a lion (hear this in Movie Trailer Guy Voice:  “In a world… where Christ is a lion… and no one cares about Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson…) movie makers must step lightly. Mental pictures drive good literature, and I do not envy anyone intending to match a six-year-old with a God-imaged lion.

A laid-back savior
I like Aslan immensely; as a deity, his rules seem few. You don’t need a Motorola user’s manual where Aslan is concerned. He’s a very laid-back sort of creator and savior, yet is wonderfully awful in the ancient sense of the word: He inspires awe. He carries far more psychic weight than any other character in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” More than Peter. More than The White Witch. Far more than Edmund, who — despite a properly enormous repentance scene at the end of the novel — heartily sucks. 

Edmund aside, Aslan keeps excellent company. Father Christmas!  He hangs with Santa Claus!  Who else is he running with, when not in Narnia? What is he up to? We are told he’s “not quite tame,” which could mean just Aslan could romp up to anybody at any time. Is he poolside at Palm Springs? Interviewing for yet another installment of “I Love The 80s? Is he (oh please, oh please, oh please) smacking Tom Cruise around? 

As long as you’re not running around with wolves or turning traitor on your own siblings along with a perfectly nice family of beavers (I’m looking at you, Edmund), you’re A-OK with Aslan, a cat of few words. In “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” he speaks a grand total of 922 words, less even than this entire article. When he does talk, it’s things like “Look alive, everyone,” or “Hi! You up there!” or, my personal favorite, a good “Haa-a-arrh!” in response to a snotty inquiry from The White Witch. Would that more leaders answered questions with a good “Haa-a-arrh!”; it would make “Larry King Live almost bearable.

But those 922 words — or however many of them are included in the movie version — must weigh heavily upon director Andrew Adamson.  Who do you get to voice a character like this?  Gilbert Gottfried would probably not go over well.  Nor would, for any number of horrible reasons, Michael Jackson.  James Earl Jones has already filled the lion voice checkbox on his resume, and is probably too busy rolling around in his Vader money to take on further cat-related voice work in any case.

The trailers always show Aslan in full roar mode, which is understandable, I guess, but I’m curious as to how Liam Neeson plans to attack the role.  He’s already played an evangelist, in a 1979 version of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” but God’s agent and God’s anthropomorphic stand-in are a thing apart.

Lewis would not approve
As if he saw the movie version on the red-carpeted horizon, Lewis himself once wrote the following on the subject of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a cartoon: “I am sure you understand that Aslan is a divine figure, and anything remotely approaching the comic (above all anything in the Disney line) would be to me simple blasphemy.”

Well! Good thing we’ve managed to avo—oh, wait a minute. Walt says hello, C.S.

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Disney’s doesn’t have the best track record of literature-to-movie translations. I vastly enjoyed learning, for instance, that “TheHunchback of Notre-Dame’s” Quasimodo did kick-steps with gargoyles sounding remarkably like George Costanza and Jim Dial — did they celebrate Festivus together?

I have read that C.S. Lewis began developing the “Chronicles of Narnia” after a series of nightmares about lions. Perhaps he was prefiguring the CGI Aslan to come; we can only hope that “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” escapes the George Lucas treatment and we are not forced to endure 90 unbearable minutes of Jar Jar Binks-style head bonking from The King.

Aslan is indeed on the move — trademarked stickers and greeting cards in his royal wake. Wherever he’s headed, I do hope it’s in the opposite direction of Narnia’s closest academic conference.

Freelance writer and English teacher Mary Beth Ellis runs www.BlondeChampagne.com, where viewers are welcome to verify that she is actually somewhat paler than The White Witch.  Haa-a-arrh.

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